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How to Prioritize Your Bills During Challenging Times

How to prioritize bills during challenging times

How to prioritize bills when you can’t pay them all

If you’re scrambling to pay your bills each month, you’re not alone, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learning how to best prioritize your bills during these times, can help alleviate some of those stresses.

According to one report released in September, 46% of Americans were having “serious financial problems.” And the poll, conducted by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that about one in five U.S. households said they were experiencing “serious problems” paying their credit card bills, loans, mortgage, rent or other debts.

While it’s always nice to know you’re not alone, it’s little comfort when you’re wondering what to do with a pile of bills you can’t afford. Do you skip out on the power bill with the hopes that the electric company won’t cut it off? Will the landlord be OK with only a partial payment this month? Can you scrimp and save more at the grocery store?

These are stressful questions with few good answers when your bank account is close to zero and you have mouths to feed, clothe and keep warm. What’s more, your decisions could lead to serious consequences—from the heat getting cut off to eviction.

Luckily, there are some resources online to help you make the best decisions on your bills during challenging times. Here are expert tips for how to prioritize bills when you can’t pay them all.

Consider the immediate harm

The National Consumer Law Center’s “Surviving Debt: Expert Advice for Getting Out of Financial Trouble” has a treasure trove of actionable tips when it comes to surviving tough financial times.

Its top rule for those struggling to cover their bills is this: Prioritize debts whose non-payment immediately harms your family. If non-payment of your rent or mortgage means you’ll no longer have a home, pay it. If you need a car to get to work and you’ll lose your job if you no longer have transportation, pay it. But if there’s no immediate consequence if you don’t pay your credit card bill on time, push that off to another month or pay the minimum if you’re short on funds.

Other high priority bills, according to the center, include criminal justice debt, utility bills, child support debts and court judgment debt. Lower priority bills include medical debt, credit card debt, private student loans and debt owed to friends or relatives, according to the center. These low priority debts only become high priority when you’re sued in court for the debt, according to the center.

Make contact, know your rights

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency responsible for protecting consumers from unfair, deceptive and abusive practices, also offers online resources for those wondering which bill to pay next.

The bureau’s Prioritizing Bills document recommends that consumers weigh the risks of not paying one bill over the other. It offers a worksheet that’s designed to help people prioritize their debts and obligations. And it encourages consumers to call the person or company they owe money to, so they can explain that they’ll be missing a payment and why.

The bureau also spells out your rights when dealing with debt collectors, along with unfair practices that they may use to try to collect money.

Ask for help

Another federal agency that works to stop unfair and deceptive practices in the market, the Federal Trade Commission also offers some guidance for what to do next when you can’t pay every bill. Their tips include asking for help. Some state and local governments have programs that allow people to delay payment on bills for a period of time. During COVID, there’s also relief for certain kinds of mortgages.

As you wade through your bills and wonder how you’ll be able to make ends meet, you also can contact a certified counselor here at Consumer Education Services, Inc. (CESI). We’re a nonprofit committed to empowering and inspiring consumers across the country to make smart financial decisions and live debt-free. Contact us for a free debt analysis today.


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